“I’m a woman, I’m a filmmaker, I love horror films – I can’t be the only one”

Alice Guy portrait picture Italiano: Foto di A...

Alice Guy, cinema’s first horror film director

I mentioned in my post about women horror film directors that Sheena had also written an article, from a personal perspective. This goes together with my interview with her, which I posted a couple of days ago. You can find Sheena’s article in its entirety here, but I wanted to take some of the things she said and match them up with points from my article, to try and get an overall perspective of the problem (if it is a problem – and Sheena and I both think it is).

After describing her background as a consumer of horror in many forms of media (books, films, theatre, TV) Sheena states quite simply that to her mind being a woman who likes horror is simply No Big Deal:

Throughout my life I have never really thought anything of it. I am a fan of horror, I am a filmmaker and I am aspiring to make a horror feature film. The fact that I am female doesn’t mean a thing.

Yet she contrasts this fact with the fact that representation of women both in front of and behind the camera in the horror genre is limited. After noting the limited number of films directed by women on show at last year’s FrightFest and Abertoir (something I also noted in my post), Sheena picks up on a list of the greatest horror films in Time Out:

Time Out compiled a list of the 100 best ever horror films, in their words “as chosen by those who write in, direct, star in and celebrate the genre.”

So a list compiled by a collection of people who are really passionate about the genre. Out of one hundred films listed guess how many were directed by a woman??

ZERO.

I spent some time in my article questioning why this was the case, and there may be good reasons why it is – if we’re looking backwards at the history of horror cinema. But when it comes to looking forward, I observed that there is a lot of output by women in the genre and that it needed light shone on it.

One thing that needs correcting is the prejudice that women can’t make horror films, or can’t make good ones. When I tweeted a few weeks ago that I thought women had a lot to offer to the horror genre, the first response I got was from a man who simply replied, “Nah.” I suppose he thought he was being funny – when I challenged him to elaborate on that, he went silent. Yesterday I posted a selection of comments made by both men and women when confronted with the proposition that ” I just don’t think [female directors] can make horror movies as dark or disturbing as male directors can.” They served to refute the accusation. But I can’t help feeling there’s still a stubborn prejudice that women can’t make serious horror films. A lot of this is doubtless confined to the sort of male horror fan who is stuck in the seventies/eighties, when lesbian vampire films were the rage, or zombie and slasher movies inevitably worked in a few female nude scenes with barely a tangential relationship to the plot. The stereotype of the overweight, long-haired young man, whose relationship with women in horror goes no further than an interest in eye candy, is a stereotype and I doubt it represents a majority. But there’s no doubt there are plenty of these guys around.*

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Why aren’t there more horror films directed by women?

Why aren’t more horror films directed by women? It’s a simple question, but perhaps the answer isn’t so simple.

Our project, The Ditchis a horror film written and directed by a woman with an all-female cast. It surprises me that this is something even worth noting, but apparently it is. So I decided to sit down with my friend and collaborator Sheena Holliday, director of the film, to discuss the issue.

[I’ve broken up the discussion into segments so that people with limited time can pick out the bits they’re most interested in, but you can watch the whole thing at one sitting here (runtime 9m 43s) if you prefer.]

We talked first about Sheena’s reaction to her experiences at FrightFest 2012, in which the issue of sexual violence against women seemed to be a constant theme running through the selected films. It was this experience that prompted Sheena’s interest in gender representation in the genre, and which has led her to research the issue of women’s role in horror:

(It should be noted that no one is accusing FrightFest of advocating or promoting sexual violence – at least, not intentionally.)

I went on to ask Sheena if there were any films in that festival which she did like, and she cited one example of a film which dealt with sexual violence in a more sophisticated way – and just happens to have been directed by a woman:

So why aren’t more women making horror films? Sheena thinks it’s inexplicable, given that more women than men attend horror films. She speculated on what it is women have to do to be more evenly represented among directors (since this is an issue which cuts across all genres, not just horror):

There’s an assumption, when it comes to horror, that women prefer to make films which concentrate more on psychological drama with more focus on character, as opposed to plot. Sheena agreed with this to an extent, but pointed out that horror has to be a blend of character drama with more visceral content:

Finally, we discussed the attitude which women have to face when they raise gender issues, both in this and in other areas (we filmed this discussion before the revelations of the threats made against Caroline Criado-Perez, but that disturbing story only makes our conversation more relevant):

Sheena will soon have a post up on her blog about this subject (which I’ll link to), and tomorrow I’ll be posting my own thoughts; not so much from my perspective as a man, but more as an attempt to summarise the situation and suggest advantages to having more women contributing to the horror genre.

A shocker of a weekend…

(This is the first in an occasional series in which our director, Sheena Holliday, contributes her thoughts and feelings about films and film-making.)

I spent the August Bank Holiday weekend at Fright Fest – a four and a half day festival dedicated to my favourite genre, horror films. I’ve been going since 2007 and I think it’s the best way to spend the Bank Holiday weekend.

As well as the main film programme (24 films!) there are also lots of Q&A sessions with the filmmakers and cast members, special previews and world premieres, short films, quizzes and special guests – it’s a seriously brilliant weekend for any horror geeks such as me.

What makes Fright Fest particularly interesting is you get to see an enormous amount of films over the weekend, from all around the world. Some are unique; but generally after a few films you start to see a trend developing. The first year I went it was all about zombie films – this was great, because I love a good zombie film! But I was seriously unimpressed with this year’s trend: rape. It seemed like every other film was about rape. Seriously. But the way some of the filmmakers dealt with the subject matter was just plain offensive, it was so exploitative. And seemingly in the films just for the sake of seeing a naked girl being attacked. These scenes brought nothing else to the films.

The Seasoning House, directed by Paul Hyett, opened this year’s Fright Fest and basically set the tone for this year’s festival. It told the story of a group of young girls who were imprisoned in a house, beaten, drugged and repeatedly sexually assaulted by lots of men. The film didn’t hold back either – it was made up of many elongated gratuitous scenes showing this. For the entire film. Guess what, guys? After the first horrible rape scene I get what’s going on! I don’t need to keep seeing it over and over and over! There is just no need!

I was complaining about this afterwards to a friend, who said – ‘what do you expect from a horror film??’ Well, I expect a lot more actually. I spend my life defending the horror genre to people, and it is films like this that give horror a bad name. The Seasoning House wasn’t a horror film at all – it was just a horrible film.

All through the weekend it carried on. Film after film of girls being attacked and abused by men, big burly muscly men, groups of men etc. After the second day I was unsure how many more of these films I could sit through. And it wasn’t just me who found all of the sexual violence gratuitous and unnecessary. I spoke to a number of blokes over the weekend and they said the same thing: that they were disappointed by the trend of this year’s FF and that so much of it was totally gratuitous and uncomfortable to watch. Like me they were after a proper scary story and a well made film.

Don’t get me wrong: there were a few really amazing films programmed over the weekend – films that actually told a decent story and had some good scares and really good characterisation. These are the films that I want to see, and the films that I am talking about when I say I love the horror genre. Films with a message, films that say something, films that make you think.

One of my favourite films of the weekend was Sleep Tight by [REC] director Jaume Balaguero. Seriously, it was amazing. Not sure it was technically a horror film, I’d say it was more of a thriller. But it was dark and unsettling and really well made. This film also included a man drugging and raping a girl – but you never saw any of it, it was all very subtly suggested. Very sinister and very brilliant. I also really enjoyed Berberian Sound Studio directed by Peter Strickland – a film that seemed to really divide the FF audience – some absolutely hated it and others loved it. I thought it was a brilliantly surreal and original film. And a nice break from all the other films at the festival.

Unfortunately it just seemed like there were loads of films that weekend which didn’t seem to bother with a story at all, or put any work into the characters, and just relied on the fact that their films had a topless girl been beaten half to death by a bloke twice her size. It’s insulting, it’s lazy filmmaking and that makes me furious. To a certain extent you always get a few films you hate on the FF programme, but this year did seem especially bad.

I’m afraid the fact can’t be ignored that these films were all made by men. There were two films made by female directors in this year’s festival (yes, two. Out of twenty-four. But that’s for another day..). Both of those films also featured people being assaulted – but the difference is that in these two films it wasn’t done in a gratuitous way. The attacks were suggested by use of clever sound and camera work (you know, the basics of filmmaking, guys…) and they were much, much more powerful (and watchable) than seeing the attack in all its gratuitous glory.

Chained directed by Jennifer Lynch was my film of the festival. The story was horrible – a child gets kidnapped and then imprisoned by Bob, a rapist and murderer. The child is forced to grow up being a slave to the man and burying the bodies he brings home, before being turned into a killer himself. But Lynch had put so much work into the characters that even though Bob was a monster, the audience felt some sympathy towards him. It was uncanny. The film was beautifully shot and very compelling; and although it featured rape and murder not much was shown, it was all suggested. It was certainly not gratuitous.

As a filmmaker myself it makes me really angry when I see films that have obviously got money from somewhere, and support from the industry, do a terrible job and make a clichéd ‘stock’ horror film. It’s just such a waste. And it’s an insult to the audience and the genre. Horror films can and should be as intelligent as any other genre. End of.

Sheena Holliday

Director of The Ditch